The 2-in-1 PCs are coming (slowly) - Chromebooks and Android Apps

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A long time ago, at the dawn of the mobile revolution I believed that (laptop-tablet) hybrids were the future of education. After having worked with one of the first available devices, the Asus Transformer Prime, I was convinced that it would take many years before that future would arrive.  Not that the Prime was a bad device, on the contrary it was a very advanced one at that time - but it was a tablet and only useful as a substitute for a laptop in a very limited way.

Ever since then I have gone with two devices: a Chromebook and a Nexus tablet, both combined being more affordable than most of the hybrid solutions that are out there. Even so, I have tried a number of devices that didn’t cut it for me in the end:  

  • iPad plus BT keyboard: no way this could ever work as a laptop for me
  • Microsoft Surface RT: that one was a complete failure to begin with (Microsoft gave them away to teachers for a very low price because they could sell it, doing probably more harm than good for its reputation by doing so).
  • Microsoft Surface 3: even though very versatile, I use it neither as a tablet nor as a laptop  as it provides inferior user experience for both uses.

On paper the newer Surface models look very good. In practice I would say they can’t beat the experience (speed, battery life, ease of use) of much cheaper Chromebooks.
My initial expectations were therefore not too high when Google announced Android apps on Chromebooks. And even though the first reviews were quite ravishing, I’m still a bit underwhelmed after receiving the Playstore on my Asus Chromebook Flip.

The bad
  • For the time being you can only use Android apps in the dev channels (which still has lots of bugs itself) on a limited number of devices,
  • A lot of Android apps don’t work or crash frequently (among them my favourite anatomy app Anatronica)
  • A lot of apps have no responsive design and look plainly awful and are awkward to use on the Chromebook
  • Trackpad - touchscreen confusion: the trackpad usually works quite well, whereas touch doesn’t always. With a drawing app I have installed drawing with the trackpad works fine, but drawing with your fingers isn’t possible
  • With many tablet apps (e.g. ebooks) the experience is much worse on the Chromebook than on a tablet (resolution, clunkier device and touch issues).

The good
  • It’s now possible to do a lot more with a chromebook, including audio recording, drawing and playing virtual instruments.
  • Tons of educational apps are available and you don’t have to pay for them again if you have already purchased them for your smartphone or tablet.
  • Also a lot more content is available that is not available on the web (e.g. magazines, Google Newsstand, epub books, etc.)
  • Google seems to be really working hard on making the experience a good one. In the past week I have not only got the Playstore on my chromebook but also two more updates that have brought  some improvements, such as clearly marking which apps are Chrome or web apps and which apps are Android apps.

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Takeway: even though I’m happy about the addition of Android apps to Chromebook, I don’t think I will be using a lot of them in the near future, as the experience is often much better on a tablet or smartphone. Having said that I am excited about the additional potential of Chromebooks for classroom use. Personally I prefer a Chromebook Flip over a Microsoft Surface in the classroom. The chromebook costs less than half the price of a Surface and feels way more productive to me.  

I have never felt the need to install many applications on my chromebook in the first place as I work primarily in my browser and there is definitely no need to install apps like YouTube or Quizlet. However the addition of Android apps on Chromebooks should make the choice for schools easier: chromebooks, tablet or more expensive Windows hybrids. I suppose with literally thousands of educationals apps (way more than there are available for Windows) the choice shouldn’t be too hard. And even though the number of apps really need might turn out to be very low effectively, their availability will hopefully remove the  psychological barrier that keep many schools from choosing chromebooks in the first place.

As Microsoft has also been putting a lot of effort into its hybrid models it will be interesting to see what the future brings. Microsoft has had a good head start and has made real progress compared to the first Surface model. However, the arrival of Android apps on the desktop, via Chrome OS and Android desktops (e.g. remix OS, possibly also raspberry pi in the near future) might pose a serious threat to Microsoft’s ecosystem which would become obsolete for many non-business users.

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